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I’ve started reading a new book called An Elegant Defense, The Extraordinary New Science of The Immune System, by New York Times reporter Matt Richtel. Within the first 10 pages, he starts laying out some nice descriptions of what the immune system looks like, both when it under-functions (leading to overwhelming infections), gets duped (causing cancer growth), and when it over-functions. This over-functioning is what we call autoimmunity.

 

Like an out-of-control police state, an unchecked immune system can grow so zealous that it turns as dangerous as any foreign disease… [Autoimmunity] is on the rise. Fully 20 percent of the American population, or 50 million Americans, develops an autoimmune disorder. By some estimates, 75 percent are women… Together, autoimmunity is the third most common disease category in the United States (after cardiovascular disorders and cancer) (Richtel, 8-9).

 

Did you know that there are more than 100 types of autoimmune diseases? I don’t know about you, but those statistics are staggering. Autoimmune disease is such a complex myriad of weird symptoms, and sometimes it isn’t caught on standard labs, and only discovered when you’ve visited enough doctors telling them that something is not right and to dig deeper. So one major question you’re likely still wondering is why autoimmune disease impacts women more than men?

 

Hormone Imbalance in Women

I believe one answer may lay within the hormonal balance of women.. And in honor of World Autoimmune Day, I’d like to specifically talk about the impact of hormones on autoimmune disease.

We have found that there are many hormonal imbalances that can occur in different autoimmune diseases. Imbalances have been found in:

  • Estrogen
  • Testosterone
  • Cortisol
  • DHEA-S
  • Insulin
  • Thyroid
  • prolactin

Hormones impact autoimmune diseases like Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, which is on the rise as the most common cause of hypothyroidism, particularly in the US.

 

Autoimmune Diseases & Hormone Imbalances in Women

We also find that most autoimmune diseases don’t seem to happen individually — if you have one, you’re at increased risk of developing another. After all, it is your immune system going a bit haywire in the body, so the chance of it impacting other organs/systems/cells in the body is increased. Researchers have even found that sex hormones (the androgens and the estrogens) can have an impact on the genes related to autoimmunity in susceptible people as young as in utero, or shortly after birth. This means that if you have a family history of autoimmune disease, that little increase in sex hormones at the beginning of your life can play a role on developing autoimmune diseases years or decades later in your life. 

 

So what can we do about it? How can we set ourselves up for the most success? If you have an autoimmune disease, what other routes should you consider to get a “whole person” approach to your care?

 

There are some very important things that need to be addressed in prevention or treatment of most autoimmune diseases. First,  balance your hormones! Almost every woman has a hormone imbalance because it is caused by stress. Low progesterone and high or low cortisol levels are extremely common and can cause fatigue, anxiety, and insomnia. If you also have low libido, depression, or foggy brain, these are symptoms of low androgens or estrogen, which are even more powerful against autoimmune inflammation. Next, vitamin D supplementation and natural antiinflammatories can be powerful, but need to be individualized according to the person and the specific autoimmune condition if present. Research has shown vitamin D deficiency linked with autoimmune disease. In addition to this, one overlooked cause of autoimmune disease is gut health. Since 60% of our immune system is in the lining of the GI tract, the complexity of the microbiome (ecology system of the gut) is the birthplace of autoimmunity for many. Lastly, environmental toxins are endocrine disruptors. Specifically, according to research by Dr. Joseph Pizzorno, author of The Toxin Solution, PCBs (a now banned chemical but still found in air, water, and food) and organochlorine pesticides are directly associated with Rheumatoid Arthritis.

 

Treating Hormonal Imbalance in Women

Hormones, in their essence, work as cellular communicators, and can directly change and impact the way cells function in our bodies. They can turn off and on different pathways by working directly on the DNA of the cell. When we take a look at hormones, we can start seeing where things are out of balance. As naturopathic physicians, we have a bit more in our tool belt to boost up what is too low, and to lower what is too high. These changes can have a significant impact on changing the prognosis of different autoimmune diseases. With the work that we can do on supporting adequate adrenal gland function, which makes cortisol and DHEA, and working with women in particular to balance estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone, we can start playing a role in decreasing inflammation and the out-of-control wheels spinning nature of autoimmune diseases. 

 

For more information, schedule a free consultation to see if balancing your hormones is the right step toward mitigating your autoimmune symptoms and improving your life!